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I have some experience reading music, but today I came across a Bartok piece, "Melody with Accompaniment", part of Mikrokosmos Vol. 2. The key signature has one sharp, C#.

I was under the impression that one sharp always means the key of G, with the sharp note being F#. This piece has the tones C# and F, so why isn't it notated in the key of D, with a natural symbol prefixing every F?

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Maybe it's a transposition from G to D? –  Chochos Mar 4 '13 at 16:57
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Bartok probably didn't want to write a # by every C in the piece or a natural sign in front of every F, maybe it was just easier to do it this way. He also has songs where each hand has different keys. His music wasn't exactly the traditional European classical so maybe he didn't feel like notating it in such a way. –  Tony Mar 4 '13 at 17:02
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He was writing music in a scale or mode that he invented himself, and that does not fit into any standard key signature. So he invented his own key signature. –  Wheat Williams Mar 4 '13 at 18:03
    
@Chochos Nope, it would have an F# in that case. For reference, page 15: scribd.com/doc/52786531/Bartok-Mikrokosmos-Vol-2 –  Matthew Read Mar 4 '13 at 19:04

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

As alluded to in the comments, it's not notated in the key of D Major because it's not in the key of D Major. Similarly, having one sharp doesn't mean you're in G Major, even when that sharp is F#.

What you've been taught is a shortcut for recognizing key signatures, but it's not the truth. A key can be composed of any set of notes — even fewer or more than the standard 7 in a Major or Minor scale, for example.

Like Wheat says, Bartok simply used the key signature that best fit the (non-standard) key he was using.

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Agreed. In going along with this, Bartok is also know for having independent key signatures for right and left hands, independent time signatures, and unconventional hand placement all also found in the Mikrokosmos. –  jjmusicnotes Mar 4 '13 at 23:29

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